A Day In the Life of An Election Judge: What It Was Like On the Inside

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Philip Hinkes This fall, my Honors American Politics class was fortunate enough to meet with Edgar Leon, a Cook County Election Clerk. In addition to helping dozens of seniors become “deputy voter registrars,” Mr. Leon also gave us the opportunity to become a Cook County Election Judge—a position that would entail working from 4:30am-9:00pm Election Day, setting up a precinct, helping residents vote, and disassembling equipment when the polls finally closed. Given my wonkish tendencies towards politics, Chicago’s propensity for corruption, and my own need of money (Election Judges get paid $160), I decided to sign up. After a brief seminar and a couple weeks of online training, I received my judging assignment: The Alice Millar Chapel; a church on the Southeast tip of Evanston where hundreds of Northwestern Students cast their ballots. On November 7th, I went north of Howard St. to prepare the Chapel for its big day. There, I met the other Election Judges assigned to my precinct, two fellow democrats and three republicans. My alarm jarred me awake at 3:45am the morning of Election Day, and by 4:30, I had pulled into the precinct. As I entered the church, I saw donuts had been provided by the Evanston Republican Party (I had never been so happy with the GOP). By 6:00am, we had completed the requisite tasks of turning on the machines, running diagnostics, and drawing a chalk line to mark the “campaign free zone”— we could now open the polls. Stepping out into the rain on Sheridan, I had the honor of saying “Here ye, here ye, the polls are open!” As the morning progressed, we had a steady stream of Northwestern students and coffee. Non-partisan Poll Watchers trickled in and out of the church, and by the late AM, we had helped 200 Wildcats vote. During our lunchtime, the Evanston Democratic party one-upped their conservative counterparts by providing Pizza Hut. At 7:00pm, the polls had to close. We packed up the machinery, closed down the computers, secured the ballots, and shooed away a handful of late voters. The day had flown by. If there was one thing I took from my day, it was how easy it was for Northwestern students to vote. Those students who had voted in the primary needed only a signature to check-in, and if they hadn’t voted before, first time registration could be done in about five minutes. To register, students had to present two forms of identification, but acceptable forms of I.D. ranged widely: driver’s license, state I.D. Passport, N.W. I.D. Library Card, bank statement, utility bill, pieces of mail, and even a Cesare account (N.W.’s version of Romanet) could be used. Moreover, inside the polling place, we had three voting machines and eight voting stalls, meaning students could complete the voting process in fewer than 15 minutes. But while it was easy Northwestern students to vote, it wasn’t so for millions of other Americans, and this issue of voter suppression can’t go unrecognized. Since 2008, Republicans State Legislators and Governors have become increasingly concerned with voter fraud, and have passed laws accordingly. That said, voter fraud is a myth: venerable law schools at NYU and Yale University, large news organizations like NBC and Time, and non-partisan groups like the Scholars Strategy Center and American Civil Liberties Union all report that voter fraud happens rarely, if ever. One comprehensive study by Loyola University determined the odds of voter fraud are 1/32,000,000, less likely than getting struck by lighting. What is true, however, is that these laws make it harder for minorities, a demographic that leans left, to vote. The ACLU, NAACP, and Department of Justice all claim these laws disproportionately target minorities, suppressing their votes. The 2016 election experienced unprecedented levels of voter suppression—868 fewer polling places nationwide, 14 states with new voting restrictions, three more states with photo ID laws, and 32 states with harsher ID laws. The list goes on. One study even projected that the culmination of all these voting laws suppressed turnout by 2-3 percent. In Wisconsin, 300,000 people, 9 percent of Wisconsin’s Voting Eligible Population, could not vote due to a law requiring a Photo ID. Given the fact that 25 percent of black americans don’t have a Photo ID compared to just 8 percent of white Americans (ACLU), it’s safe to assume the significant proportions of the 300,000 were democrats. Further, the director of the Wisconsin Election Commission, Neil Albreicht, noted a direct correlation between the stringency of voting laws and voter turnout. For example, Milwaukee, a diverse, Democrat stronghold under harsh voter ID laws saw a steep drop in turnout of 60,000 (from 2012). Across the Badger state, counties under the new voting laws had turnout drop 20 percent. Conversely, counties with more lenient laws witnessed only a small dip in turnout. Interestingly, when asked to point to a single conclusive instance of Voter Fraud that could be prevented by these new laws, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) could not. But it gets worse. This election, North Carolina experienced the most reprehensible forms of voter suppression. After 2012, North Carolina state legislators passed a series of laws eliminating early voting days, closing polling places, adding complex paperwork to the voting process (the NAACP reports this paperwork intimidated many illiterate African Americans, preventing them from voting), and, of course, implementing I.D. laws. In 2015, a North Carolina Judge in opposition to the new laws said “they will suppress minorities with surgical precision,” and unfortunately, she was right. To cite a few instances, 17 counties with a large black majority had their number of polling places reduced to the barest, legal minimum: one.  In Guilford County, the number of polling places was reduced by 95 percent. And Mecklenburg county, home to Charlotte and the largest share of the state’s black population, saw polling places drop from 22 to four. In the counties under the new, racist voting laws, African American turnout dropped to 71 percent of 2012 levels. However, in the counties unaffected by the new laws, African American turnout remained at 91 percent of 2012 levels, highlighting the correlation between the new laws and suppression. Moreover, it is worth noting Hurricane Mathew hit 32 North Carolina Counties, putting them in a State of Emergency just weeks before the election. In these 32 counties, African American turnout reached 79 percent of 2012 levels, meaning it was easier for black people to vote in counties under water (as a result of a category five hurricane) than in counties under voting laws. The right-leaning Voter Integrity Project could not find a single case of voter fraud prior to 2016 in North Carolina. All of this suppression might have been acceptable if Hillary had won; Donald Trump’s victory is all the more disheartening knowing that millions of Americans were disenfranchised along the way. And with a Republican majority in Congress, a soon to be majority in the Supreme Court, and an Attorney General who doesn’t believe in the Voting Rights Act, the threat of suppression will only increase. I can only imagine what it’s like to be an Election Judge in 2018, because by that time, we should have a whole new array of Voter Fraud prevention laws. ]]>